Regular readers of this blog will know I don’t have much time for council newspapers. I’ve no objection to councils communicating with the public via newsletters or even magazines, but harnessing the council’s advertising spend to fund propaganda-filled publications designed to fool members of the public into thinking they are reading real newspapers is something else.
Part of my objection comes from the fact that I don’t think members of the public are fooled by council newspapers, such as the fortnightly ones pumped out in part of London. Yes, Hammersmith & Fulham Council might go to great lengths to disguise the fact its newspaper it produced for the council, by the council – to the extent of not even putting the name of the authority in the editor’s address at the town hall – but the public will soon cotton to the relentlessly positive coverage of the council, and treat the newspaper with the suspicion you’d expect. I suspect H&F know this, hence why they only put the council’s main website URL along the dateline at the top of each page rather than something more obvious like: “Brought to you by Hammersmith & Fulham Council.”
So who is fooled by these newspapers? Who out there actually thinks that delivering a newspaper once a fortnight, which members of the public quickly get wise to, actually represents value for money? One possible answer comes from Jason Cobb (@jason_cobb) on Twitter.
I only know of Jason through Twitter. We’ve spoken once or twice to each other, prompted originally by a 140-character rant about council newspapers. I don’t know much about Jason, but I do know he’s very civic minded, and tends to tweet from a lot of Lambeth Council meetings.
Recently, most councils took a hammering for the way they handled the cold snap in January. Not enough grit, not enough planning, too many schools shut/not enough schools shut, the usual kind of thing.
Jason saw a different side to that when he attended a Lambeth Council cabinet meeting:
So the councillors were praising themselves for the way they dealt with the snow – citing evidence from Lambeth Life. That’s a newspaper run by the council. It was a reader letter no less. In all seriousness, I’m not suggesting the council newspaper resorts to that well-known tactic of writing its own letters, an oft-used trick when the editor’s mailbag is empty in the old days prior to forums and commenting under stories.
But for a council to take a positive letter about gritting and make it the ‘star letter’ and then for councillors to cite it as proof people were happy with the service during the snow, at a council meeting, seems wrong to me.
The other two letters – yes, count them – on the page came from a charity and from an NHS boss about how the NHS was trying to make Lambeth healthy. A focal point for balanced discussion this letters page is not.
Of course, as someone with a vested interest in councils being kept in check on how they communicate with the public, I would say such behaviour is bad form.
But what I find interesting is the fact that Jason, who incidentally will also criticise local newspapers for their coverage of events (including pro-council stories) sees right through the grandstanding which came on the back of the council’s publication of a single positive letter in a publication run by the council.
Putting aside the need to run an interview with Peter Hook about the Hacienda, a nightclub which was based in Manchester, in the same council-funded newspaper, how does Lambeth Life rate when dealing with controversial issues such as the the state of swimming in the borough?
Again, it was Jason who flagged this up on Twitter, with the response:
The answer sadly is that it wasn’t a mickey take. Another example of public funds being used to tell one side of the story. And further proof of why councils shouldn’t be allowed to use public cash, or take private advertising at the expense of existing local newspapers which are committed to covering all sides of an issue, to run their own propaganda Pravdas.
Just two extreme cases from one council or typical of what’s going on in many places which aren’t currently scrutinised in such a public way? Only time will tell, I guess